Northwestern College held a day of prayer and fasting today to seek reconciliation after a two-year debate over theological identity and management practices went public in October.
Last month, a group of former trustees took their case online, asserting that the suburban St. Paul school is "badly divided" and drifting from its conservative evangelical identity under president Alan Cureton, who came during the school's centennial in 2002.
The school says it has established "academic, fiscal, and program strength" under Cureton's leadership while "holding firm to its Christ-centered biblical foundation." Dissenters fear their beloved college, where evangelist Billy Graham served as president from 1948 to 1952, is poised to become the next example of "the dying of the light" among Christian colleges.
Confrontation Between Believers—Online
The former trustees assert that "thoughtful dissent is neither welcomed nor tolerated" at Northwestern, where one-third of the board has resigned or been removed since June 2007 for allegedly refusing to give Cureton their "complete and unfettered support" during the college's Envision Excellence capital campaign. On October 27 the trustees launched a "Friends of Northwestern College and Radio" website in order to engage the debate publicly on whether or not Northwestern is growing lax on matters of biblical interpretation such as gender roles and eschatology.
"It grieves us that it has come to this point," said Galen Call, former trustee and current senior pastor of Venture Christian Church in Los Gatos, California. "We don't see this website as being the source of the problem. We see it as taking the covers off a problem that has existed for some time."
News quickly spread when the website was picked up by Justin Taylor's popular blog, Between Two Worlds. A Facebook group started by concerned alumni soon followed, quickly mushrooming to over 1,000 members.
The school defended its theological steadfastness November 4 when Cureton and current trustees addressed the student body during a daily chapel service. The college also launched its own website—"NWC Responds"—today (Nov. 11) in an attempt to keep the debate from becoming as heated as recent ones at Baylor University, Cedarville College, and Westminster Theological Seminary.
"While many may see these past few days as an overwhelming obstacle, I believe this is a defining moment for Northwestern," said Cureton in an open e-mail message. "In times of adversity, we can either pull together or be drawn apart."
Concern Among College Family
The chapel service received mixed reactions. "A vague concern exists among the majority of the campus. Students are concerned, but not sure what they should be concerned about," said senior Ryan Howard, editor in chief of The Column, the college's student newspaper. "The chapel only addressed one of the issues—the theological drift issue—and didn't cover all of them. I think students really do want answers at this point."
Concerned alumnus Dallas Jenkins ('97), who researched the dispute on campus in the spring of 2008, says a stark division exists between faculty and the administration and that critics have too much credibility to be ignored.
"There is smoke coming out of the windows at the Northwestern College house, plain and simple," he said. "That leads us to believe that there's a fire inside."
Jenkins said his interviews revealed faculty concerns of theological drift into postmodernism, as well as fear and mistrust of the administration's management style, exemplified in the sudden demotions of communication department chair Ripley Smith and Bible department chair Doug Huffman, both long-serving and popular professors.
Now he has become a spokesperson of sorts for alumni seeking answers. "If this is all just one huge misunderstanding based on flawed humans who can't discern truth, then explain that," said Jenkins. "But let's take a stand as Northwestern College and decide exactly who we are instead of letting this unease continue."
Brook Berry, vice president for marketing and enrollment management, acknowledged that concern over the college's theological direction was too widespread to be dismissed, but said the heart of the controversy was related to personnel, not theology.
"Much of the campus unrest can be traced back to a few high-profile personnel decisions," he said. "[Grievance] procedures were not utilized, which has resulted in these personnel issues spilling over into the public arena."
Supporters of the trustees argue the personnel issues arose when professors who voiced theological objections to the school's atmosphere came into conflict with the administration's vision for the college.
The Path From Private To Public Dissent
Dissent from trustees and faculty began to culminate after a June 2007 board meeting reportedly failed to achieve unity on the college's doctrine and its modern application. In August 2007, the board invited Huffman and two other faculty members to present their concerns on the college's direction without repercussion, first before the board and later before faculty.
The presenters said the administration was exhibiting postmodern views of truth, as evidenced by doctrinal agnosticism—an ethos where the "best ideas win" but biblical ideas aren't assumed to be best—and the advancement of gender and diversity agendas without biblical justification. "Our 'key' concerns are simply not complementarianism and premillennialism, but the centrality of biblical truth and doctrinal integrity," said Paul Helseth, associate professor of Christian thought, during his remarks.
They also reported that a management style of "heavy-handed authoritarianism" had produced low morale and a loss of talent. Huffman was later demoted in the spring of 2008.
A board-commissioned faculty survey in April revealed 44 of 57 respondents felt "an atmosphere of fear and distrust exists at Northwestern College" and that dissenters feared repercussions. In May, the student newspaper reported that 52 percent of faculty respondents said relations between faculty and the administration were mediocre or poor, and 49 percent said they could not openly voice concerns to administrators.
On June 9, Call and three fellow and former trustees, citing a crisis of disunity between faculty and administrators, appealed to Cureton to resign so that NWC might "avert serious decline and recover its spiritual distinctiveness." On June 16, the board dismissed the dissenting trustees for having "drafted an ultimatum that directly opposed the majority action of the board."
College Seeks Reconciliation
"The divisions between the faculty and some members of the administration are real and need to be addressed," said Berry. He cited steps to bridge the gap with the formation this summer of the Jethro Commission, a panel of six faculty members. The body has recommended the creation of ex-officio positions on the college board and cabinet to represent faculty, among other proposals.
The school says Huffman was demoted after a "disagreement" among him, Cureton, and provost Al Ottley, and that Cureton "humbly admits that the situation should have been handled better the first time—and is grateful for the second chance to make things right." Cureton wrote that he was pursuing reconciliation with Huffman and Smith by establishing an independent faculty committee—whose members he will select—to investigate the demotions.
Call says he became particularly concerned over the integrity of the college's leadership due to the recent revelation that Cureton had for years declined to sign the college's doctrinal statement because of its premillenial eschatology.
The school says Cureton "initially had a personal struggle" with the premillennial position and "needed time to wrestle and study the biblical basis for it" before signing the doctrinal statement. The school says the trustees were removed not for theological differences or loyalty issues, but for their "persistent disregard for board governance and bylaws."
The school was founded in 1902 by fundamentalist Baptist William Bell Riley. The school partially closed in the 1950s due to financial difficulties, and gained accreditation as a liberal arts college in 1978.
"Let me state it emphatically: Northwestern's mission is not changing," said Cureton in an open letter posted online. "Northwestern is not wavering from its historic, conservative, evangelical position."
Call disagrees. "Our goal, our prayer, is that Northwestern would return to its vision, its values, its beliefs that have historically been held," he said. "We as a team of people are not arguing for the removal of the president or the board, nor asking that we ourselves be returned; we simply want to see the college return to its roots."
"The ongoing fight against theological drift is a very healthy part of almost every conservative Christian institution—[as] well it should be," said Berry. "Frankly, we wish more colleges were as concerned about theological drift as Northwestern."
The concern may last for some time. "I appreciate that the administration seems to be taking steps towards reconciliation, but I hope they understand that this goes deeper than a few incidents that need closure," said Jenkins. "There's still a long way to go towards clarity for the Northwestern College family."
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